Directed by John Farrow and co-produced by John Wayne in the title role of this Louis L’Amour story. Wayne’s co-star Geraldine Page earned her first Oscar nomination (Supporting) and L’Amour his only (Best Writing Motion Picture Story). This slightly above average Western also features Ward Bond & James Arness as Army Indian Scouts and Michael Pate (among others) as well as an uncredited wonder dog (like Lassie). What makes this film particularly real are all the things Wayne does at the beginning of the film after his character has walked out of the desert and onto Page’s ranch including shoeing a horse (though it’s obvious that a stunt double was used to break the wild one).
Ten year old Johnny Lowe (Lee Aaker) notices a man walking towards their remote ranch nestled in Apache Indian territory. He calls to his mother Angie (Page) who witnesses the man coming out the arid landscape carrying only a saddle bag and a rifle but accompanied by a brown collie-like dog. They later learn that the man’s name is Hondo Lane (Wayne); the dog’s name is Sam. His demeanor at first frightens Mrs. Lowe who insists that her husband has gone after some cattle and will be back soon but Hondo later learns that she was lying. However she needn’t have feared Hondo even after she reads his name off his rifle and correctly identifies him as a gunman who has killed others. Hondo is an independent man who lives by an honest code of the West as a scout and messenger frequently employed by the Army. In fact he is a sterling example to her son and a sharp contrast to the husband that abandoned her after he married her for her ranch. Later through a series of circumstances Angie’s husband Ed (Leo Gordon) encounters Hondo who kills the married man in self defense even after he’d saved Ed’s life in an Indian attack. Ed was a dishonorable man a fact Angie later wants kept from her son despite Hondo’s wanting to tell him how his father had died.
Hondo’s character and the fact that he knows Angie and her son saves his life later when Vittorio (Pate) the Chiricahua Apache Chief discovers a connection between them. After a captured Hondo had won a knife fight with another Indian (Rodolfo Acosta) Vittorio learns that Hondo had once lived with the Apaches (in fact he’d been married to one) and finds a photograph of Johnny on his person. Vittorio had allowed the Lowes to continue to live on their ranch despite his tribe’s murderous rampage (caused by the white man breaking their treaty naturally) because Johnny had showed such a resistive spunk that he’d dubbed him ‘Small Warrior’ and instructed his mother to find her husband or pick one of his braves to raise him properly. Once the Chief sees the photograph he assumes Hondo is Mr. Lowe and fearing for his life Angie doesn’t let him think otherwise. For his part Hondo was somewhat incapacitated having been burned by torture stabbed during the knife fight and carried over the back of the horse on the journey to the ranch. As Hondo recovers Vittorio tests him and becomes satisfied with the man’s honor such that he allows the three of them to continue to live in their territory.
But all good things must come to an end. The army who’d been instructed to rescue the settlers in Indian territory arrive at the Lowe ranch with scouts Buffalo Baker (Bond) an old friend and Lennie (Arness) who reveals the secret of Ed’s death to Angie under the command of a young Lieutenant McKay (Tom Irish) fresh out of school. However the information about her husband’s death serves as a mere speed bump in Hondo’s relationship with Angie. Despite Hondo’s advice the greenhorn officer continues into Apache land but comes limping back after an ambush. Hondo takes charge of the scouts and the Lieutenant’s command to lead the Army and the rescued settlers through a series of “circle the wagons” stands that wrap up this heretofore fine Western in a disappointingly stereotypical way.